By Carolee Dean
Author of Take Me There
My 15-year-old daughter and I recently took a summer road trip from New Mexico to California. How did we entertain ourselves for 24 hours on the road? Audio books. We learned Spanish from the Pimsleur program, easily downloadable to my iPhone, and got ahead on required sophomore summer reading by listening to The Grapes of Wrath.
As we traversed through the dessert I was able to point out Needles, Calif., and say, “This is where the Joads stopped to camp along the river. Imagine what it was like traveling in the back of the truck with all those people and no air conditioning.”
At the end of each chapter I would ask my daughter to give me a summary of what happened. At first all she could say was, “Uh, nothing.” It reminded me of many similar dinner conversations when I asked what had happened at school that day and got the exact same response. In her defense, I will say that a lot of pages can pass in The Grapes of Wrath without much happening. An entire chapter is devoted to a turtle crossing the road. A lot of required reading can feel this way to kids (and adults).
Much has been written about the importance of reading books with young children. We all know how important it is for them to decode words and learn vocabulary in the early years. As they mature and learn more complex tasks like comprehension, prediction, and synthesis, we often leave them to their own devices, assuming they are getting this instruction at schoolbut secondary teachers often don’t teach these skills as directly as we may assume. On numerous occasions I’ve asked my teenage children how the class discussion went over this book or that. Sadly, they often say there was no discussion, just a test.
As a mother, I feel like these teachers are not teaching the truly meaningful skill of how to think. As an author, I fear they are missing the point of what books are all about and how rich and life changing the reading experience can be. As a speech-language pathologist working in the public schools, I know teachers are under tremendous pressure to improve test-taking skills. Their curriculum is often dictated week by week by their department, sometimes leaving little time for meaningful class discussions which, even if attempted, may not go very far because many of the students have not read the “required” reading.
What can a parent do to help? Understanding the required reading selection is only part of the picture. We also want our kids to know how to comprehend a book’s meaning and ultimately to develop a passion for stories. Here are some suggestions I’ve found helpful.
Continue to find new ways to read with your kids. Teens are obviously past bedtime stories, so this can be a challenge. Sometimes I sit side by side with my kids, like I did when they were little, taking turns reading and discussing what’s happening in the story. Not all teenagers are comfortable with this. Mine tend to only ask for help with material they find particularly daunting. Often they don’t sit still long enough for this to be a regular activity, but I try to be available when I can see they are struggling. Let them know you are available to help.
Listen to audio books. Audio books are offered for sale online and at most bookstores. Many of these books can be checked out for free at your local library on CD. You might even have a local company that rents audio books. Many books can be downloaded to an iPod, iPhone, or MP3 player. I have an adapter that links my iPhone to my car’s speaker system. It’s easy to listen to an entire book over the course of a long road trip, but you can also listen to short segments for 15 minutes at a time as you run errands or drive your kids to the mall.
Check out your child’s summer reading list. Our high school only has required summer reading for honor’s English, and not all schools provide such lists, but if they do, you can give your kid a big head start by helping them access these materials.
Listen to books just for fun. Leisure reading can develop into a meaningful lifelong passion. Involve your kids in the selection of leisure books. If they think all books are going to be like The Grapes of Wrath or their other required reading, they may never develop a love of reading.
Some parents don’t want to share books with older teens because they may feel the reading material is challenging for them as adults. No matter how high our level of education, we all come across reading material we don’t understand. Just try reading a professional journal, or for that matter, consider how confusing the instructions are for assembling a piece of furniture or a new grill. One of the most important things we can do as adults is to model for kids what good readers do when they are confused.
Admit it when you are confused. If adults can admit their weaknesses, it helps kids know they aren’t stupid just because they get confused or don’t understand.
Go back over the passage. Good readers have strong comprehension, not because they understand everything they read the first time, but because they have good strategies when they don’t understand. Young people benefit when we model these strategies. Rather than plowing through until the end, good readers stop and go back through material that is puzzling, sometimes several times.
Use the dictionary. If you come to a word you don’t know, look it up. Model how to use the dictionary and show your children the joy that comes from learning new words.
Pause and talk. You may not be comfortable asking your teen to give you a summary of the chapter as I do with both my students and my own kids, but you can pause and talk about the story in a more casual way, sharing your point of view or asking questions like, “What did you think about that event or that character’s actions?” and “This is what I think is going to happen. What do you think is going to happen?” or “How do you think this (what is happening in the story) relates to that (what’s going on in the world)?”
One of the best things about books, especially classics that cover meaningful social topics like The Grapes of Wrathis that they can serve as a springboard for discussions with your kids about your personal beliefs and values. It doesn’t matter whether you agree with the point of view of the author or vehemently disagree; a book can be a gateway to exploring meaningful topics. Our job as parents is not just to help our kids become better readers, but also better thinkers, and ultimately, better citizens in a complex world.
Carolee Dean is a speech-language pathologist in the public schools as well as a young adult author. In her novel Take Me There, she explores the story of a boy who can’t read or write but dreams of becoming a poet. Her upcoming paranormal verse novel Forget Me Not (October 2012) examines cyber bullying and teen suicide.
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